Ladies and gentlemen… the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The final 16 teams are locked in and Round 1 playoff matchups are set in every division except the West, where Colorado can still pass Vegas for first (and the Presidents’ Trophy) with a win over Los Angeles on Thursday. So, who are the top contenders now that the dust has settled on the abbreviated regular season?
Knowing full well there’s going to be an upset or two that blows up our brackets, this week’s Power Rankings lists each of the 16 playoff teams in order of how strong their case is for the Stanley Cup. Injuries are considered, as are how these teams finished in the regular season. So if you’re banged up and finished the year on a sour note, it’ll be reflected here.
We’re on to the second season now, folks, and about two months away from crowning the next champ.
1. Vegas Golden Knights
The best thing about this time of season for Vegas is that the salary cap is out the window, so the threat of having to dress a short bench goes with it. Currently first in the league, Vegas arrives with a top five offence, defence and the No. 2 team save percentage. It’s that last one that leads to the biggest questions for this team. Who will start Game 1: Marc-Andre Fleury or Robin Lehner? And then what would need to happen for the other to get the net? Last season’s decision to go to with Lehner after he was acquired in trade led to the dramatic stabbed-in-the-back moment with Fleury’s agent on Twitter. This year Fleury is a Vezina candidate, Lehner has the ever so slightly better numbers since returning to the lineup in March, and they’ve split duties since then. This is their biggest issue — and that’s why Vegas tops the list.
2. Carolina Hurricanes
The Canes have been on the precipice of something for a few years and it’s all falling into place in 2021. As high event as ever, Carolina is built around its deep defence with top-level talent, the offence has blossomed around Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov (while Vincent Trocheck has rebounded for one of his best seasons ever) and now they even have goaltending. A weakness in the past, the three-deep set of goalies has led the Canes to the third-best save percentage in the league. They did lose the last two games of the regular season to Nashville, their first round opponent, but won each of the previous games against them. And Carolina finished the season strong overall, going 13-4-5 since April 1.
3. Colorado Avalanche
A pre-season favourite that has met every expectation, the Avs are neck-and-neck with Vegas in the division. The gulf in scoring between Nathan MacKinnon and the rest of the team narrowed this season and the league’s third-best offence can throw a few threats at any opponent. On the back end, Cale Makar is a Norris contender and leads a young and impressive group and helped the Avs to the lowest shots against per game mark in the NHL. Getting Philipp Grubauer back was a critical development for Colorado, but they also got concerning news around MacKinnon as the regular season came to a close. Something to monitor.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs
One of the best regular season Maple Leafs teams of all time, everyone knows about the firepower Toronto can throw at you with a top-five offence. But the biggest and most critical improvement from them this season is that they are top-five in shots against per game after ranking 19th in the stat last season. The improved team defence is what the Leafs hope carries over to playoff success, and that one of Jack Campbell or Frederik Andersen is healthy enough to get them through. The young players have matured into veterans, who have been surrounded with older leaders, and the blue line has been gradually upgraded in the past couple of seasons. This is the best shot the Leafs have had to get into the final four in years, and from there it’s anyone’s guess how the divisional champs will match up to one another.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins
It was a slow first month for the Penguins, but since Feb. 9, they’re 32-11-2 and have the best points percentage in the league. The offence isn’t any concern, averaging 3.60 goals per game since the turnaround. However, of all the 16 playoff teams, only Minnesota and Nashville allow more shots against. Pittsburgh is 14-8-2 against the other three playoff teams in the East and Jeff Carter has proven to be one of the best trade deadline pickups, giving the Penguins a fierce 1-2-3 down the middle.
6. Tampa Bay Lightning
Credit to last year’s champs, who were one of the best teams all season even without one game from Nikita Kucherov, who will now be back for the playoffs. Steven Stamkos has been out since early April, but he too is expected to return. Victor Hedman, however, had been playing through an injury for over a month, missed the tail end of the season and has an unclear status. Still, Andrei Vasilevskiy can be a series-stealer, the depth throughout the lineup is enviable and they are as well-positioned to repeat as any team in recent memory.
7. Boston Bruins
One of the top lines in hockey remains that way with Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand all finishing over 60 per cent in Corsi. On top of that, Taylor Hall and David Krejci have found instant chemistry, Tuukka Rask has been 7-1-0 since returning and the team allows the second-fewest shots against per game.
8. Florida Panthers
Offence was Florida’s strength a year ago and they continued that in 2021 as the league’s No. 3 goal-scoring team. But the defensive improvement is the story here. The Panthers went from outside the top 20 in shots against per game last season to 16th this year, and one of the worst units at suppressing high-danger shots in 2020 to the fourth-best in the league in 2021. The goaltending hasn’t gone as planned, but while Sergei Bobrovsky has only seen marginal improvement after a disastrous first season in Florida, Chris Driedger has been the go-to guy and makes the situation in net one to watch.
9. Edmonton Oilers
There has been defensive improvement within the Oilers as well, but there are two notable reasons why they are No. 2 in the North: The first is that Mike Smith is having one of the best seasons ever for a goalie his age, and his own personal best since leading the Coyotes to the West Final in 2012. The second is Connor McDavid having one of the best era-adjusted offensive seasons ever.
10. Washington Capitals
The Caps rank in the bottom half of the league in shots per game and at 5-on-5 generate a similar amount of opportunities as they give up. That leaves less room for error in net, which also happens to be the biggest area of concern. Ilya Samsonov has allowed three goals or more in seven of his past nine starts and was put on the COVID list late in the season, which makes Vitek Vanecek an intriguing backup. Neither has started a single Stanley Cup Playoff game. Alex Ovechkin is back and having Zdeno Chara go against his former Bruins team in Round 1 is a great storyline.
11. NY Islanders
It’s hard to let the Islanders get too low in these rankings, because their team defence and goaltending translated to a lot of post-season success in last summer’s bubble. It also led them to a strong start to this season, but the end has been a rough landing with a 10-7-3 record in their last 20. Goal scoring was never a strength, but they’ve been one of the worst offensive teams since Anders Lee went down and attempts to mitigate that at the deadline have not panned out.
12. Minnesota Wild
Buoyed by a great team shooting percentage and goaltending, the Wild have overperformed some of their underlying numbers and get outshot more heavily at 5-on-5 than any other playoff team. Kirill Kaprizov is the headliner, but Joel Eriksson Ek, Jordan Greenway and Kevin Fiala make up en emerging young core to go along with a defence that has long been the team’s strength. It’s been a great season and a big step, but can they take down the best in their division yet?
13. Nashville Predators
Juuse Saros has made a heck of a push for the Vezina over the past few months and is the top reason why the Preds didn’t sell off at the deadline and were a top three team by points percentage in the second half of the season. Surprisingly, Calle Jarnkrok has been the team’s top scorer in that span, while bigger names such as Matt Duchene, Viktor Arvidsson and Ryan Johansen have each continued to struggle. They’re a different team than when they started, and got Filip Forsberg back in the lineup in May, but it’ll be an uphill battle to get out of the Central.
14. St. Louis Blues
Like Nashville, the Blues finished better than they started, wrapping up 10-4-3 in the past month. That got them into a playoff spot, but while the Preds had to fight off a charging Dallas Stars, the Blues only had to stay ahead of a fading Arizona Coyotes team. Look, the Blues are that team that could catch everyone off guard and if Jordan Binnington runs hot, he could help them steal a series. Binnington has a .924 save percentage in his past 15 starts, so that’s not out of the question. But even as the wins started to come St. Louis was still being outshot quite heavily at evens and were considerably outscoring their expected goals rate. Since April 1 the Blues have played 11 games versus Colorado and Vegas, winning only three of them.
15. Montreal Canadiens
Health is going to be a major factor for the Canadiens because they’ll need all hands on deck to take down the Maple Leafs in Round 1. Could it happen? Absolutely. If Carey Price is indeed back for Game 1, we have to consider how historically he improves in the playoffs. Even with his regular-season struggles being a story for a few years, Price’s save percentage in his past four post-seasons are (in chronological order) .919, .920, .933 and .936 in last summer’s bubble. That’s all they’ll need to overachieve in these playoffs, too, and even if Price can’t go, Jake Allen is a solid second option.
16. Winnipeg Jets
They come in ice cold with just 22 goals scored over their past 11 games — which includes a five-goal outburst versus Vancouver on Tuesday. That offence is supposed to be Winnipeg’s strength, because its defence won’t be slowing down Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl in Round 1. If they can get Nikolaj Ehlers back, that’ll go a long way to remedying the situation. Connor Hellebuyck is probably going to have to stand on his head for the Jets to even get out of Round 1. The Jets beat the Oilers just twice all season and not at all since Feb. 15.
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